The Absurdity of Eternal Damnation

Written by
Cameron Davis
Mar 4, 2021
Author:
Cameron Davis
T

he following presents a philosophical case for the absurdity that lies at the heart of prevailing notions of eternal damnation, here defined as any view holding that self-aware beings will be kept in existence to endlessly suffer. Rather than relying upon biblical proof texts or longstanding theological currents, my arguments develop from logical considerations, particularly related to notions of justice and free will. This omission of biblical foundations will inevitably lead to premature objections and dismissals from those who believe that claims regarding the Christian faith must begin from and be measured by the Bible. However, this overlooks the reality that persons, whether as individuals or communities, inevitably approach scripture via their own presuppositional frameworks. As such, it is first necessary to consider the various elements that shape one’s interpretive lens, for which considerations of definition, meaning, and consistency are essential.

It is likewise common for individuals to dismiss difficulties and contradictions in their respective theological frameworks by appealing to God's transcendence and unknowability, often taking the form of “God’s ways are not our ways.” While it is indeed true that any realities that transcend our sense realm will, to a great extent, evade our grasp, appeals to inscrutability only prevent important conversations from taking place or, worse still, can render terms employed so contradictory or meaningless that they lose their utility. Conversations are only possible and beneficial when parties agree upon terminology.

This argument proceeds, then, assuming that persons inevitably come to sacred texts and traditions with presuppositions that shape their interpretations, and that conversations, to be fruitful, must avoid dismissals and appeals that render dialogue futile or meaningless.

Justice

Proponents of eternal damnation who understand the gravity of their position often admit discomfort with the tenet but maintain that it is demanded by God’s perfect justice. At a superficial level, this claim appears reasonable. If God is perfectly good and just, anything short of ultimate justice is inconceivable. However, this position is weakened considerably, to the point of absurdity, when one posits that justice demands endless punishment. This is made clear by a few simple questions: Does one’s eternal damnation rectify their injustices? Does eternal damnation provide restitution to victims? Can suffering in and of itself be good, either for the one who suffers or for God? As this section will argue, the answer to these questions is clearly no. Absent a beneficial aim, punishment (especially without end) is senseless.

Imagine a tyrant who ruled using terror and torture to subjugate others to his will. Those deemed enemies were subjected to horrendous, inhumane practices that ultimately resulted in their demise. As a result, denizens of his territory experienced deep existential despair and dread. Who could blame those oppressed if they desired vengeance against their draconian master? However, would revenge or retribution make for a more just society?  Removing the tyrant from power, imprisoning him, or otherwise taking steps to end his influence and misdeeds would be necessary for paving the way for humane and equitable conditions, but would subjecting him to constant torture for the sake of vengeance during his imprisonment help realize these aims? Such terrors would not undo his past evils, nor the pains endured by his victims. Torture would only add to the pain and suffering already perpetrated. One may argue that torturing the tyrant would serve to dissuade others from pursuing unjust ends. However, among other issues, this presupposes that such deterrence could not be otherwise achieved and that inflicting such torments on another human being is a legitimate means for achieving a good end. Most important, unless one holds that it remains possible for those in God’s heavenly kingdom to desire and commit injustices, such deterrence is superfluous as an eschatological end.

Realizing truly just outcomes requires considering what good, if any, might result from pursuant actions because goodness is integral to any plausible notion of justice. Put simply, an action or outcome cannot be just if it is not also good. Too often, vengeful or retributive actions are pursued without hesitation, not because they achieve just ends, but because we fail to account for rectification.

If eternal damnation neither makes for more just conditions nor achieves good ends for the perpetrator or victim, one might resort to arguing that it fulfills a divine good or statute. St. Anselm of Canterbury famously argues that a sin merits an eternal punishment because transgressions break eternal laws. Again, there is a superficial appeal to this line of reasoning; however, as before, deeper scrutiny reveals weak foundations. Chief among these are the numerous and unsubstantiated presuppositions one encounters in this argument. For instance, not enough is said for why an eternal trespass should merit eternal torment or why such a fate would restore God’s honor. It may be true that, in sinning, one transgresses the Eternal One or an eternal law. However, it does not necessarily follow that this calls for an eternal state of suffering for the transgressor. After all, how does torment undo committed offenses or restore God’s honor? Such a punishment would fail to rectify injustices done. Eternal damnation does not undo sins committed nor their consequences. Additionally, St. Anselm’s argument provides no substantial means for distinguishing between minor and major sins. Any sin, regardless of how inconsequential, merits eternal damnation because it trespasses eternal law.

Recent centuries have seen major shifts away from the retributive ideals at the heart of supposedly justice-based notions of eternal damnation. This movement has been driven by failures of retributive systems to achieve their desired outcomes. For instance, capital punishment offers no rectification or remediation for either those incarcerated or their victims. Additionally, there is no evidence that it provides a necessary deterrent not already provided by incarceration and other less severe penalties. Retributive methods also distract from preventative strategies that are effective, such as addressing the societal issues that increase instability and violent offenses.

Here, one encounters the greatest theological peril of retributive frameworks: by prioritizing supposedly deserved punishments, there is a general failure to identify root problems and to consider remedies that lead to actual rectification and transformation. Under retributive models, one can be declared either innocent or guilty and still remain in a state that predisposes them towards unjust actions. What is needed, then, is an account of justice that aims to rectify this condition.

At best, retribution acts as a bandage that fails to address the root ailment. At worst, it is vengeance that serves only to increase the violent, reactionary spirit that ails creation. Punishment for its own sake fails to achieve a good, which is a necessary condition for just outcomes. Nothing is rectified, restored, or gained via retributive punishment, and the sinful and fallen state suffered by the cosmos is only worsened, albeit relegated to some depraved realm or individuals who forever remain an exception to God’s promise to make all things new and to wipe away every tear. To overcome these deficiencies, it is crucial for theological considerations to transition from the presuppositions and legal fictions that have long prevented us from identifying legitimate means of rectification.

Free Will

Considering the absurdities that accompany justice-based arguments for eternal damnation, it is increasingly common to maintain that such fates result not from God’s will, but from the damned themselves.  God forever extends love and salvation to all without exception, proponents advance, but this abundant grace must be voluntarily accepted. [1] For advocates of this free-will defense, it is at least possible that one may forever opt out of God’s redemption. This position is equally as untenable as justice-based defenses of eternal damnation, though demonstrating this poses more difficulties, largely because of how most Christians have been conditioned to think about free will, and due to the general complexity characteristic of conversations regarding human volition.

If asked whether one can freely choose what is detrimental, an affirmative answer seems obvious. The world is plagued by cataclysmic consequences that result from the amalgamation of everyday actions. However, the answer to this question is complicated by ever-increasing understandings of human behavior and complications presented by habituation, intention, and overall perception.

To begin revealing the complications that underlie considerations of free will, we might instead ask if one chooses what is evil because it is evil, or because one desires evil for its own sake. The answer, at least among scientists and philosophers, seems to be “no.” One may choose what has adverse consequences, but the decision itself is motivated by perceived benefits. For example, a heroin addict does not choose to inject themselves because they desire the detrimental addiction and consequences that follow, but for the perceived good resulting from the pleasurable state granted by the opiate. Those who work to rid people of their addictions understand how catastrophic it is to frame the issue as a simple matter of free will. Instead, they recognize that such individuals are unable to overcome addiction independently and that failing to recognize this results in victim blaming, which does nothing to advance healing.

One might respond that this example is an extreme case that fails to accurately represent the wide variety of committed evils. Upon deeper consideration of the Christian philosophical tradition, however, it is shown to fit the human condition quite appropriately. First, the Christian intellectual paradigm has long maintained that evil is not a phenomenon that exists or that is substantive in its own right, but is rather, like a hole, defined by absence. There are several reasons for this conviction, the most important being that God, the creator and sustainer of all things, could not be wholly good, as has also long been affirmed by the Christian intellectual tradition, if God were the author of evil. Additionally, because evil has no being (i.e., does not “exist”) it cannot be created and can thus only result from destruction. As such, evil is held to be a privation that is antithetical to being and what is. Because human beings can ultimately only desire what exists, it therefore follows that evil, lacking substance, cannot be an object of desire. [2]

Second, the Christian tradition maintains that the cosmos is held captive by destructive and unavoidable forces, meaning that human beings inevitably succumb to evil. If not in the form of heroin addiction, perhaps alcoholism, gluttony, or more socially acceptable detriments like greed and narcissism. However, even if one avoids these vices, all succumb to death, the ultimate and final evil.

Returning to the previous example, then, the heroin addict desires what is good and substantive in the consumption of the opiate and not the resulting privation. Such is necessarily the case with all volitional intentions because human beings can only intend what is substantive.

Another problem for those that hold evil can be chosen, and for choice in general, are the various limitations that influence human perceptions and intentions. What one perceives as desirable is heavily shaped by environmental factors ranging from inherited familial values to what one’s culture holds as praiseworthy. For instance, many cultures have exalted warfare and the various instruments that make for good combatants. If those raised in such cultures grow to believe killing their enemies is praiseworthy, to hold them culpable of wrongdoing would be, in their eyes, to punish them for doing what is good. For an example closer to home, consider how willingly those in Western states participate in economies that depend upon the constant consumption of frivolities, all the while diverting monetary resources from worthwhile causes, often without much awareness of the various ills that result from their habits (e.g., child labor, sweatshops, and environmental degradation). Add to this the numerous physical and mental ailments, societal constraints, and scarcity problems that plague humanity and it becomes clear that choices are more than mere deliberations between available options. Thus, it was customary among early Christian thinkers to suggest that true freedom lies with those that acquire liberation in the form of knowledge and perspectives that allow them to see reality more accurately, and who are consequently freed from the various harms to themselves and others that result from ignorance and captivity to other behavioral ailments. This reality is consistent with Jesus’ proclamation that knowing the truth sets one free. A truly free will, then, is one that will not choose what harms and enslaves. [3]

Even if it were possible to freely and culpably will evil as an end in itself, this still would not justify eternal torment. Given that Christianity holds salvation to be the highest possible good for a human person, one is left no grounds for prioritizing free will and its potentially catastrophic consequences over salvation, unless one wishes to simultaneously hold that God is incapable of overcoming a person’s willed resistance via persuasion or compulsion. This position, however, has its own disastrous consequences because it necessitates evil being both desirable itself (shown above to be impossible) and equally or more desirable than God. This could only be possible if God allowed for such catastrophic potential or would require God to forever abandon those damned to the various ailments that prevent them from being truly free and recognizing what is good. Finally, it is worth noting that human free will is only good insofar as it can achieve what is good. If it becomes the instrument of one’s detriment and fixed evils, it ceases to be an instrument for good and, consequently, has no grounds for being preserved. Put simply, if salvation is a higher good than human volition, and human volition is only good insofar as it can achieve good ends, free will fails as a justification for eternal damnation.

Conclusion

Eternal damnation is an absurd and indefensible conviction that has too long plagued the Christian tradition. As outlined in this essay, attempts to substantiate the notion through appeals to justice fail to recognize true rectification, instead prioritizing supposedly deserved penalties and punishments. In turn, these models promote approaches more akin to vengeance than solutions capable of identifying and resolving actual problems. Likewise, free-will defenses fail to justify such a horrendous fate on numerous grounds, including evil being undesirable for its own sake and volition being an inadequate basis for confining an individual to a hopeless, irredeemable condition of torment. I invite all Christians to thoroughly consider and scrutinize their inherited convictions. In doing so, we can do away with harmful notions that have for too long terrorized believers and impeded the Church from proclaiming the truly Good News of God’s total victory over sin and death.


1. This is not the only prevalent version of the free-will defense of eternal damnation. For instance, some posit that God extends an offer of salvation only once and, once, rejected, it can never again be accepted. For this essay, I have chosen to use what I believe to be the most gracious and merciful version of the free will defense to show that even it falls victim to absurdity.

2. For a personal demonstration of this reality, try to imagine non-being or nothingness. You will find that you are only able to conceptualize phenomena (things) that are based on what you have previously observed. Even fantastical creatures like unicorns are comprehensible only because they are rooted in real, observable entities (in this case, a horse and a conical horn).

3. For those who have been conditioned to see volition simply as the capacity to choose between options, this understanding may seem counterintuitive. However, if one elects to sell themselves into slavery, has this choice not ultimately restricted their free will?

Cameron Davis

Cameron Davis is a husband and father of three living in Northern Utah. Since receiving his master's in history in 2015, he has worked as a freelance marketer and editor. With his family, he attends St. John's Episcopal Church where he currently serves on the Bishop's Committee. In his free time, he enjoys taking his dog for walks, reading David Bentley Hart, and watching sitcoms.